SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Perhaps at least some of Brian Kelly's disappointment over Gunner Kiel's transfer stemmed from the lack of competition Everett Golson will face leading up to the 2013 season.
"The best guys are going to play," Kelly said Tuesday, referencing a different position. "We'll choose the right 11."
Golson, unquestionably, is the best guy for Notre Dame now that Gunner Kiel is on his way out. While Kelly hopes Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Malik Zaire will push Golson for a starting spot, it would take an unexpected, catastrophic step back for Golson to lose that No. 1 role.
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There may be something to be said for stability aiding Golson, though. After all, he played better after gaining the confidence of his teammates last October, when he could finally stop looking over his shoulder to see if Rees was warming up on the sidelines.
Golson's played 13 games in college in a myriad of settings. He's opened a season across the Atlantic Ocean in Dublin, played (albeit poorly) under the lights in South Bend against Michigan and became just the fifth quarterback to lead his team to a win over Bob Stoops in Norman. He went into Los Angeles and capped off an undefeated regular season, then got an up-close-and-personal look at college football's latest dynasty in the BCS Championship.
And he did it all while facing the pressure that comes with being the quarterback at Notre Dame. Kelly has seen those experiences shape Golson into more of a leader, a role he hopes the junior-to-be grasps going forward.
"He's leading workouts with the players when the coaches can't be there, whether it be one-on-one, seven-on-seven," Kelly explained. "He's active in meetings. He sits in that chair over there and he's on the edge of the chair…It's a guy that has been the starter at Notre Dame and understands what goes along with that.
"So across the board, this is a different young man because he's been in it, he knows what it looks like now. So every single day we see a step up."
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Leadership can only get a player so far, though, if his on-field performance lags behind. Golson still has a ways to go before he can be a guy who can truly win football games for the Irish. Specifically, Kelly wants to see a more consistent version of Golson in 2013.
"Getting us in the right protection, playing at a tempo and a pace that we can control the football game at the pace that we want to play at," Kelly said of how that consistency can manifest itself. "Just the next step in his development, which there's a lot of things that he's going to have to work on."
In terms of tangible production, getting Notre Dame's offense from the red zone to end zone should be a high priority. The Irish offense scored a touchdown 48.3 percent of the time when they reached the red zone in 2012 -- the 13th-lowest percentage in the country -- and that was with matchup nightmare Tyler Eifert lining up near the goal line. Only one team with a worse red zone touchdown percentage played in a bowl game last year, that being Toledo.
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Similarly tangible is the weight gain Kelly expects from Golson. The quarterback has put on a few pounds in the last couple months, but is still about five pounds below the playing weight Kelly wants.
"He knows what he needs to do. This isn't a message being sent out to Everett," Kelly said. "These are conversations I've had with him. He's got to continue to put on weight and get that coat of armor for the fall."
A more consistent, durable quarterback who rounds into a leader for Notre Dame's offense -- that sounds pretty good as the Irish look to build on the success of 2012. Whether Golson can put it all together, though, is the next big step.